BODY & BRAIN
Benzodiazepines fuel overdose deaths
Prescriptions of these antianxiety drugs are also on the rise
HUMANS & SOCIE TY
Easing test anxiety
boosts bio grades
helped low-income students
BY AIMEE CUNNINGHAM
As public health officials tackle opioid
addiction and overdoses, another class
of prescription drugs has been contributing to a growing number of U.S. deaths.
Prescribed for anxiety and insomnia, benzodiazepines such as Valium
and Xanax are highly addictive and can
be fatal. In the latest sign of the drugs’
impact, overdose deaths involving
“benzos” rose from 0.54 per 100,000 in
1999 to 5.02 per 100,000 in 2017 among
women ages 30 to 64, researchers report
in the Jan. 11 Morbidity and Mortality
Weekly Report. Among all overdose
deaths, that 830 percent increase is surpassed only by rises in those involving
synthetic opioids or heroin.
Overall, there were 10,684 U.S. overdose deaths involving benzos in 2016,
BY SUJATA GUPTA
At a large Midwestern high school,
almost 40 percent of low-income students were poised to fail biology. Thanks
to simple measures aimed at reducing
test anxiety, that failure rate was halved.
Psychological interventions that
improve grades could help keep more
low-income students in the sciences, says
Christopher Rozek, a Stanford University
psychologist who led the study, reported
online January 14 in the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences.
Low-income students are less likely
than high-income students to take
advanced science classes. In turn, those
students are less likely, or unable, to
major in science and math in college or
to pursue related, often lucrative, careers.
according to the National Institute on
Drug Abuse. In 1999, the total was 1,135.
Benzodiazepines are especially dangerous when used with other drugs that
slow breathing, such as opioids. In combination, the substances can
“cause people to fall asleep
and essentially never wake
up again,” says addiction
psychiatrist Anna Lembke
of Stanford University
School of Medicine. Benzos
and opioids are often prescribed together.
The rise in deaths hasn’t stopped the
flow of benzodiazepine prescriptions.
The number of U.S. adults who filled
such a prescription rose from 8. 1 million in 1996 to 13. 5 million in 2013, a
67 percent jump, a study in the American
One factor underlying this achievement
gap is low-income students’ internalized feelings of inadequacy in such fields,
Rozek says. Those feelings often translate
to pretest anxiety and poor grades.
Previous small studies have shown that
reducing performance anxiety improves
test scores. To scale up that work, Rozek
and colleagues recruited 1,175 freshman
biology students at an Illinois public high
school; 285 of the kids came from a low
socioeconomic background. At the school,
slightly over half of low-income students
typically fail their final biology exams;
6 percent of high-income students do.
Rozek’s group investigated whether
reading and writing prompts before
an exam could improve test performance. Students were placed in one of
four groups. A control group was told
to ignore anxiety. Another group of students wrote about their fears, a method
intended to clear up the headspace
needed to focus on a test. A third group
read a statement explaining that the
physiological responses to stress, such as
a racing pulse, can actually be beneficial
Journal of Public Health in 2016 found.
Benzos enhance the activity of gamma-
aminobutyric acid, a chemical messenger
in the brain that has a calming effect. With
daily, long-term use the brain adapts,
and the drugs become less effective. A
person “needs more and more to get the
same effect,” Lembke says. Many people
who take the drugs don’t use them prop-
erly, according to a study reported last
year in Psychiatric Services.
Of 30. 6 million adults who
reported using benzos,
5. 3 million acknowledged
misuse, such as taking them
without a prescription.
Safer anxiety and insom-
nia treatments are available,
called selective serotonin reuptake
inhibitors and therapies to learn coping
strategies. Lembke says that benzos are
more appropriate for short-duration,
low-dose treatment in severe circum-
stances, such as for seizures. s
and help with attention. Students in a
fourth group did both activities.
Of 205 low-income students in the
three experimental groups, 168, or
82 percent, passed their exams, compared
with 49 of 80 students, or 61 percent, in
the control group. The three types of
interventions worked equally well.
High-income students experienced no
benefit from these activities. Rozek sus-
pects that these students were already
more adept at emotional regulation.
Robert Tai, a science education
expert at the University of Virginia in
Charlottesville, questions the study’s
emphasis on passing exams. “Improving a
student’s test scores will not improve the
rate of them pursuing the sciences,” says
Tai, whose research has shown that inter-
est in science matters more than grades
when it comes to career trajectories.
But Rozek notes that tipping scores
even slightly does have real-world impli-
cations. “You can imagine students who
are failing science courses maybe can’t
even register for additional science
courses,” he says. s
Rise in benzodiazepine-
related overdose deaths
from 1999 to 2017 in
U. S. women ages 30 to 64